More than anything, as we stand on the cliff of another Asian conflict, another on the Korean peninsula, the lessons of the Vietnam War and the experiences of those who fought must be remembered. With an outrageous potential increase in the military budget and escalating toxic rhetoric from North Korea paired with similar talk from our own president who threatened to “totally destroy North Korea,” we know that our government will ask again for a human toll for war, and we have to decide whether or not we’re willing to pay it.
I wasn’t alive to know the world during the Vietnam War, only for the aftermath of growing up in an America that was trying to make sense of what happened and how to place these soldiers somewhere in the legacy of American combat.
Now, through Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s “The Vietnam War” on PBS, we will have a shared national experience to reassess and learn. Conversations will inevitably reignite over Vietnam, but also amid other discussions of war and how the U.S. engages in world politics today vs. then. The media will dig into how the ripples of Vietnam have carried forward in the way that we wage war, as well as we report on the war, which often is radically different from the experiences of soldiers. That coverage has already started. The questions are already being asked. Can we learn from our past before the situation with North Korea and Kim Jong-Un escalates any further? It could already be too late.
Our nation is at a crossroads, again, much in the way that it was during Vietnam. Civil rights and gender equality remain unresolved. Our streets are explosive and police out of control. History seems to be repeating itself, including a president with precarious and potentially illegal dealings.
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The inevitability of these questions, provoked by the 10-part, 18-hour documentary, led me to contact my uncle who went to Vietnam as an artillery specialist and was made a medic. He saw the best and the worst of the war.
Louis Anderson Rucker, or L.A. as we’ve always called him, was 20 when he was called to Vietnam. He was married, a young father and didn’t want to go to the jungles of Vietnam.
“I joined the service in 1965. The next year, I went to Vietnam,” he says. His voice is reticent at first, perhaps not sure if this is a story he wants to tell. “I was stationed at Fort Knox, and I didn’t want to go.”
My uncle, like many soldiers, went to war as a baby — a man barely old enough to drink. When he returned home, he came back to a world that didn’t make sense.
“I couldn’t adjust. Everything was so quiet and laid back. In Vietnam, you were constantly on the move, and you were constantly thinking,” he said. “You couldn’t think about home. Your mind had to be on what you were doing. I saw a lot of dudes end up dead, thinking about writing back home — thinking about their girlfriends.”
When my uncle landed at the airbase Tan Son Nhut, he got his first taste of the immediate, brutal realities of war. “It was a lot of wounded soldiers, a lot of bodies laying around,” he said. “It was horrible. The smell… the smell stayed with you the whole time you were there. No matter where you went.”
His first night with the 1st Infantry Division, they were attacked. “When I first got to my stationary company. We had a mortar attack. They threw in bombs,” he said. “I made it to the bunker and stayed there overnight.”
As a medic, he was asked to treat not only soldiers but also sometimes the people who might have been attacking them.
“Our army surrounded this village,” he said. “The villagers called me a ‘Bullshit bác s˜y.’ Bác s˜y means doctor. They called me a Bullshit bác s˜y because I was talking shit to them. All the people loved me really, but you never knew the difference.”
He knew that he couldn’t trust the kindness of the villagers, even if it was sincere. At any moment, they could become deadly.
The use of guerrilla-warfare tactics set Vietnam apart from many other conflicts. The Viet Cong perfected camouflage and traveled through tunnels to surprise unsuspecting troops. Many times the young men had no idea who was attacking, or from where they were being attacked.
He recalled a search and destroy mission. “The first platoon went out and they were in a firefight. They [the Viet Cong] killed damn near all of them. We were behind them in the second platoon,” he told me. “We ran up on them and they were all damn near dead.”
When his platoon arrived, one soldier was lying on the ground and calling for him.
“I didn’t want to go out there. Those motherfuckers were still shooting,” he said. “I had to go. I got out there with him. He said, ‘Man, I’m hurt.’ I turned him over, and his whole ass was shot out, and I couldn’t save him. I couldn’t save him.”
“When I had the guy in my arms, he died. I left him out there. They were still shooting at me. I was behind a rock.”
L.A. chuckled, not at the horror of holding a dying man but at the idea that he was in such danger that all he could do was hide behind a rock like he’d seen in the movies as a kid.
“You ever seen a cowboy movie where the rock is flying off,” he imitated the bullets hitting a rock.
“I was behind this rock, and it scared the shit out of me,” he said. “I laid to the ground and they called for a helicopter. The helicopter came and got him.”
“This guy was a sniper and he was shooting at me. All I could do was hope and pray that I got back home, got back to my company.”
He made it back to his company, and after another harrowing experience in his final two weeks in Vietnam, he made it home to his family in Kentucky, but was stationed soon after in Cleveland where he lives now. Like many soldiers, he still has ties to Vietnam, ones that he is eager to resolve.
For my uncle, the reconciliation with the past is part of going forward, and it is a lesson that we all should learn.
With an ongoing war in Afghanistan, and the threat of sending already exhausted and stressed troops into a new conflict led by an ill-prepared commander-in-chief, against an erratic enemy, the glimpse of our future should make all of us better students of Vietnam.